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Despondency and the Application of Biblical Parallels to Personal Experiences

August 9, 2012

The initial stages of the spiritual life resemble the experience of falling in love for the first time. Being with one’s beloved makes everything beautiful. During such periods, many people experience an abundance of divine consolation. Prayer is effortless and the benefits derived therefrom seem endless. This stage is marked by the grace given by God in order to attract the soul to spiritual concerns and draw her away from sin and the transitory, sham happiness offered by the world.  However, this initial grace is withdrawn in order that a deeper, more profound purification can take place.  Simply put, the heart must be purified in order to make room for the indwelling of the Spirit which abides no counterfeits or false gods.

Elder Sophrony, a disciple of St. Silouan the Athonite, described this as the second stage of the spiritual life.  This stage is characterized by a perceived “abandonment of God’s grace.”  In explaining Elder Sophrony’s teaching, Archimandrite Zacharias states, “This stage is characterized by the withdrawal of grace.  It is extremely important for us to know what lies behind this phenomenon, so that we are aware of the potential it holds to attract the gifts of God. Elder Sophrony used to say that just as there is a grace of mindfulness of death, so is there a grace of the withdrawal of grace.  As mindfulness of grace is a gospel of life because it confronts man with eternity in its negative aspect, in the same manner the loss of grace can be a great source of inspiration to us, provided we respond to it as our Fathers in God have shown us.  This should prevent us from losing heart or giving in to despondency on account of the dryness which accompanies the second stage.”

The key here is to grasp what is meant by “respond to it as our Fathers in God have shown us” for without this the Evil One can tempt us to despair, to stop fighting the good fight, and to abandon the good work that God has begun in us. This is precisely where the application of biblical parallels to our own personal experience comes into play.

In chapter 9, “The Garden of the Heart” I note, “one final characteristic method that the fathers so effectively use to reshape an individual’s perspective on his situation is to locate a parallel to his experience in Holy Scripture and consider how the biblical figure responded. . .This scriptural approach is especially well suited to encourage those sensitive souls in despair over their sins.  For example, Amma Syncletica would remind her nuns that Rahab the prostitute was saved by faith, that Paul the persecutor became an elect vessel, that Matthew the tax collector became an evangelist, and that the murderous thief was the first to open the gates of paradise.  Since someone in despair can easily identify with the failures of others, such examples mesh perfectly with his despondent state, and yet they break it wide open by directly modifying core beliefs about the meaning of a person’s view of the past and resolve for the future in terms of his relationship to his Creator and Redeemer.”

The importance of these Scriptural parallels cannot be understated.  This is why the Orthodox Church services are replete with the chanting of Psalms and the proclamation of the Scriptural readings.  They serve as a reminder that the work of our salvation is a joint venture-we have to cooperate with God’s salvific grace.  Ultimately, salvation is a gift from a Loving Lord and Savior.

“In summary, within the believers’ rich and variegated life of ascetic struggle and participation in the Holy Mysteries, they are initiated into teachings and practices that can transfigure their basic perspective vis-à-vis themselves, others, and their world.  In particular, the daily struggle for virtue, the practice of cutting off the will, and the prior rehearsal of virtuous responses behaviorally reshape their values and their view about significant details of their lives.  The cultivation of good thoughts concerning the beauties of virtue, the truths of revelation, and the inevitabilities of death and change together with spiritual reading cognitively instill both powerful categories of thought for appraising their situation and inspiring models for imitation.  Finally, salvific words from the pulpit (ambon) or the confessional on God’s love and providence, the value of self-reproach, the plight of others, and the Last Judgment as well as the use of imagery and parallels from scripture can provide and epiphany that enables believers to see and interpret their lives in the clear light of Christ.  Thus, the faithful who struggle to follow Christ entrust themselves to the Church’s care, and collaborates with the Husbandman of their souls to transform the wilderness of their hearts into gardens where virtue blooms.  Beholding the change wrought in their souls, they exclaim with the psalmist’s voice, ‘This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.’”

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